Conversations in Critical Making | 4. Defining Critical Making

Blueshift Series

Conversations in Critical Making

 in Conversation with Garnet Hertz


Defining Critical Making

GARNET HERTZ: So, how did you initially come up with the term “critical making”?

MATT RATTO: For a few years I had been exploring the relations between sociality and technical systems, using a variety of material semiotic theories and people like Haraway and Latour as starting points. I was finding it difficult to articulate truly critical positions and engage with the social thought of philosophers like Heidegger or the scholars from the Frankfurt school within my studies. I had a sense that this difficulty was somehow related to a kind of linguistic bias that I was surprised to find within material semiotic theories. I was trying to come up with some evidence for that linguistic bias and it evolved into creating a research program through which I could constitute another way of studying technology.

I was thinking one day and thought: “critical making”–that sounds so weird, it’s a very odd convergence of two words. That got me thinking, why was it that critical thinking as a phrase sounded so normal and common-sensical but critical making sounded so odd? So that was the starting point and really, my work on critical making has been primarily to try to figure out the conceptual distance between critical thinking and critical making.

GH: The starting point has to do with what we count as critical?

MR: Yes, exactly. My reasoning is basically this: most people consider thinking a linguistic practice–an internal monologue in which we use conceptual categories to make sense of the world around us. Similarly, we tend to think of criticality as a particular form of thinking, one in which we pause to reflect, and step briefly away from action in the world in order to reason and consider these actions. Therefore, the activity of being critical is mainly thought of as one bound up in language and to some degree outside the actual world. Critical thinking as it is theorized and as it is taught is first and foremost a linguistic practice.

However, when we think of making we have a tendency to consider it as the opposite of thinking, and to consider it a form of habitual or rule-following behaviour. Making, in this light, looks a bit like assembling something from Ikea–put this piece here, cut this out, nail this together. There is a strong tendency to consider making as aconceptual and programmatic.

So this is the source of the cognitive dissonance that one feels where hearing the phrase “critical making”–critical we see as conceptual, and making is seen as not conceptual–there is a kind of lacuna between those two terms. But that’s obviously quite strange if you’re at all a maker, of course, because making is a deeply conceptual activity, and deeply reflexive . . . though not necessarily in the same way as critical thinking. So, critical making for me, in the beginning, was an attempt to figure out why making is considered by many to be a noncritical activity and starting from there to find ways to recover, study, and teach the criticality of making.

GH: That makes sense. At the time you had come up with that term, was it also partially a response to Make magazine or was this more a response to critical theory?

MR: Both, in a sense. I was aware of Make and the maker movement more generally, and saw the work being done under these labels as enabling conditions for what I wanted to do. But my work was really a response to critical technical practice and, to a lesser degree, critical design. I like the work that uses those labels, but wanted to focus more explicitly on linking material modes of engagement and critical reflection on our technical environments. My goal was to explore actual making practices and to try and come up with ways to link deep reflection and critical theory within technical activities.

It’s important to see the origins of the term “critical” in “critical making” as coming from the notion of critical scholarship defined by Frankfurt School scholars such as Adorno and Benjamin. Central to their work was the idea that criticality entailed not just reflection but also intervention in society. I was talking about this from a very academic perspective because when I was first talking and thinking about this, my goal was to create innovative scholarly practice. I wasn’t thinking about critical making as a more general form of social engagement. But this was back in 2007–I now see a lot more connections with some of the things that you and I have talked about before, like tactical media and other forms of material intervention. I now see critical making as a more general practice than just something academics do. Critical making as a larger category allows us to connect up a variety of practices and see them in some sense as similar, like design practice, art practice, tactical media practice, academic practice, or engineering practice. Critical making can become a kind of a common hub that a whole set of material interventions can circulate through.

GH: I see the term of relevance to people who are making projects who come from the art world, activist world, even the designer world, like the critical design angle, like Dunne & Raby. They are disenfranchised or are questioning the agenda of Make magazine and an apolitical, gee-whiz kind of perspective that it tends to bring to developing things. That’s where I see people responding to the term of critical making–where they were already doing this style of experimental hacking or electro-mechanical studio work under the banner of electronic art. In the process of co-opting and popularizing this mode of production, Make thoroughly sanitized it and removed it from the streets and smoothed out its tactical or controversial edges. Critical making can be seen as re-introducing some critical edge into the maker movement, I think.

MR: Yeah, I have a bit of a distant relationship to the maker movement for some of the reasons you just stated. Like many technologically inflected movements, it has a tendency to be fearful of politics or, really, of being seen as political which is a bit of a different thing. But it’s important to recognize that a lot of the development in toolsets, technologies and communities has come out of a great groundswell of interest in material practice. Whether it is knitting, or electronics, or 3D design and printing, or any other types of making, it serves as an important ground for a more critical material practice than what has previously existed.

I have to say it wasn’t until very recently, in part through some of our previous conversations, that I started to really think about the sanitization of making you just described. I did note that the maker movement struggled with being political, in the same way the free/libre/open-source software movement did before it. And I do wonder if we will end up in the same place. I mean, how many people know about the history of the terms free software and open-source, and the fierce debates that accompanied those terms? Heck, I saw a fist fight break out at the 2002 Open Source Convention in San Diego. But the maker movement seems to care much less about these issues and almost ready to discard any sense of making as a form of social critique.

It has been interesting to see how what is considered “making” has changed as it has become a more dominant cultural activity. What is incorporated under that term has certainly broadened to encompass a wealth of activities–community gardening, knit bombing, organizational work–much more than just technical objects. Some of these various activities are addressed in DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, edited by Megan Boler and myself. In it, you can certainly see that some people really want to highlight the political and conceptual attributes of their work and move beyond being considered a maker. Natalie Jermijenko, for instance, whom we both know, told me that she really liked the term “critical maker.” I think she wants that label “critical” because her work is obviously critical. It’s not just maker work. Though others might see her work and say, “she’s a maker,” and leave out the critical component. Just as an example of that, people might look at her “One Tree” project and say “oh look, she made these clones of trees. Isn’t it interesting that she was able to clone these trees?” And by focusing on the technical task–as interesting and difficult as it probably was–they completely miss the point that Natalie’s work serves as a way of making material relations between genetics and environments, plus many issues concerned with environmental sensitivity and so forth. To think of “One Tree” as maker work and ignore the critical statements that are being made is to sanitize the work.

GH: Agreed. So how do you see critical making in relation to something like critical technical practice? Is critical technical practice historically coming out more from technology and engineering side? Is critical making as you’ve defined it as coming from more of a scholarly angle?

MR: I think there are a lot of similarities in all these terms–critical making, critical design, critical technical practice, participatory design, and so forth. They all emphasize forms of material engagements as important processes for social intervention. But in my conception of critical making–and I should say that I am not of course the only person who gets to define that phrase–but in my conception of it, I think critical making differs from the others in its broader focus on the lived experience of making and the role this plays in deepening our understanding of the socio-technical environment.

I’m turning these other practices into straw men in saying this–so take it with a grain of salt–but I do see the other practices as focusing in on improving technologies by uncovering nascent values, bringing relevant stakeholders into the design process, or by showing alternatives. I’ve never really thought of critical making as being about the final object, about making functional technologies at all. Instead, I see critical making as first and foremost as a way of learning and exploring the world.

GH: Critical design, as one example, is quite clearly targeted towards product design. That is its strength and weakness: it’s very much focused on a critique of affirmative product design, but as a result of its focus it often doesn’t go beyond that.

MR: That’s right. I think of critical making as broader than critical design. With critical design, there is an object that sits out in the world, and, through our witnessing of it some critical reflections of the designer are revealed to us, the observers.

Critical making, I think, is more focused on process than on that final result. In my own critical making practices, I actually create a bit of a firewall between the object that is created and the process. I’ve resisted doing things like exhibiting the objects that emerge from critical making courses and workshops, mainly because I’m not quite sure how to stop the idea of exhibiting from overly structuring what we do as we go through a practice of critical making. I assume that this is something that good artists and designers figure out how to do. But for me, personally, because I don’t know how to ignore that reality, I worry–I’ve been worried–that thinking too much about finality and display would reduce participants ability to explore, learn, and reflect.

But, that being said, I do think that critical making is the first step to then doing these further steps, which have to actually do with improving the status of our environment. But critical making could reveal an insight that is not captured in the final object. In fact, I’m sure of this, and I’ve seen instance where, through critical making, participants come to understandings that really do not get embodied in or even connected to any kind of final object that could move outside of the context of that original making.

GH: But isn’t it important to disseminate the projects that people make? It seems limiting if you are only interested in–for lack of a better term–the workshop component. I do understand the hesitation to go into the art scene and exhibit these projects as sacred things apart from the activity of making them. But how does one disseminate the work of critical making? Do you host a bunch of workshops, or how does the work spread?

From my perspective making a project is a process where knowledge resides in the thing, like a blunt, powerful, and legible mode of knowledge production. In an art context you’re able to display that object and perform with it in a festival or an exhibition.

What’s your key hesitation with the art world? Or is it just that you haven’t really worked in that field before?

MR: No, I’ve never worked in the context of art. And in my naïve understanding of it, at least when I first started doing these activities, I saw art and design objects being seen as having value because they were considered novel, or innovative, or aesthetically pleasing, or similar valuations. Just as I want to avoid the normative values associated with technologies from engineering perspectives–values of labour-saving, rationalization, instrumentalism–I also want to avoid the judging of critical making objects through the lens of novelty and aesthetics. Not that either of these types of valuations are necessarily bad when applied in the right context, but I do find them overly limited for the kinds of deep, materially mediated reflections I want to do. I wanted to make sure, for myself and for others that I was shepherding through the process, that our focus didn’t shift, that we didn’t get captured by the traditional ways of valuing the objects that we are making.

And again, this has all been a process: figuring out what it means to make critically. There are a couple of commitments that I made to myself when I first started this and one of the first was that it had to involve a material engagement–there needed to be an engagement within the process of critical making where the material substrate that you were working with helped to determine the final form of whatever you were making. In other words, that the world pushed back on your own thoughts of what the world could be. So it couldn’t be a purely imaginative or, as Tim Ingold puts it, a purely hylomorphic practice. That was the first commitment. And the second one was that any engagement with the objects of critical making had to remain an active engagement of shaping and production. This means that rather than creating passive moments whereby people would experience the objects that others had made, there had to be a way to construct an engagement between the person coming to that object and the object itself that was real, that actually was transformative for the object as well as the person.

GH: Sure. I see that what you’re describing right now having a resonance in with some contemporary art or movements like Fluxus and other action-oriented, process-oriented type of processes.

MR: Or even like happenings, right? I mean, in some ways I think of happenings as almost more the kind of model, or the kind of games the surrealists used to play. In some sense that’s the kind of way that I’ve been thinking of the events.

GH: Or Situationism.

MR: Absolutely. I haven’t really explored those connections, but have been focusing instead on the more pragmatic details of it all. I guess you could say that my most important critical making is the making of critical making. I still feel that it would be hubris to link the often quite mundane work I do with terms such as art or design. I just didn’t think that critical making would be a label that would resonate for artists and designers. Though in many ways what I’ve been doing is appropriating the practices of artists and designers as well as those of engineering.

GH: Sure. I think that the term has become more relevant now that a number of undergraduate students in university that are very interested in the maker movement, and they have gone through the introductory steps of “being a maker”: they have an Arduino that they’ve maybe made an LED blink with, they perhaps have been to Maker Faire, perhaps worked a bit with 3D printing and they feel like they belong. And I think a lot of individuals or faculty members that have been doing this type of work for decades kind of shake their heads and go, “OK, well that’s great that you can make an LED blink, but let’s try to think about some bigger issues in society or culture.” I see the term being of relevance for situations like that.

MR: For me, that’s very exciting, and makes me a little nervous as well. When I was just off in my little world, doing my little critical making stuff, I really felt that I could push the scholarly and conceptual part a little further in creating a new academic form that takes the idea of material semiotics seriously. Many scholars hold to the notion that the world is both simultaneously a real material thing out there that resists our ability to control and describe it, as well as something that is deeply semiotic, deeply the result of our conceptualizations. And everyone tried to theorize their way to an understanding of this–the interfiliation of the social and the natural, the agency of objects, the information of our built environments. But I wanted the materials of the world, the things and objects we engage with, to not only be present in these arguments as linguistic artifacts, as textual doppelgangers so to speak, but to exist as key elements of our working thoughts. Most importantly, I’ve wanted to create a way of working in which the materials of the world are a necessary part of critical scholarly work. And it remains fascinating to me how few scholars truly engage with these materials when it comes to social and humanities study of technology.

GH: Sure, of course. I’ve had a similar reaction being through a PhD in film and media studies, and new media studies with people who have never touched any sort of computer programming language. It struck me as very odd, that it’s a completely valid argument to say that if you’re studying Foucault that you need to understand French, but if you’re studying new media art or technology, that you don’t need to know how to program. And I think there have been a lot of other people, like Alex Galloway or others that have argued this perspective. It’s a bit along the lines of Kittler and media materialism to find importance in a deep understanding of the technologies that one studies.

MR: That is in fact one of the most interesting questions that emerges from this work–what counts as a deep understanding? The kind of critical making that I’ve been describing really troubles easy definitions of deep understanding–pure technical knowledge isn’t enough, it’s not just about getting close to the machine in Tracy Kidder’s sense. You also need to have an understanding of the kind of ways that the materials might impact or relate to or engage with or co-construct the kind of social reality that we live in. You need to have an understanding that includes deeply technical as well as deeply social knowledge.

GH: There are always deeper levels within any technology. Take computing for example: do you need to know how to use Scratch, do you need to know how to use C++, or do you need to know how to use Assembly? There are always lower levels of any technology. Do you need to know how logic works in a microprocessor? A problem in media materialism is the issue of how low should you go . . . and where does it end? This process eventually terminates in people digging in the dirt for metal, a bit like Thomas Thwaites’s Toaster project.

MR: Exactly. Do you need to know how a computer works? Do you need to know how binary data is encoded on the hard drive? Do you need to know how to write the microcode that powers the processor at the heart of the system? Do you need to know how to build a computer? Do you need to know how functional programming languages work? So the problem here is to decide where it ends. In his book Designing Engineers, Louis Bucciarelli tells this great story about being at a conference where people are bemoaning the state of technical knowledge in the US, saying that no one knows how their phone works. But then he started to think about it, himself, as a trained engineer, “do I know how a phone works?” And he goes down the rabbit hole–do I know how to use a phone? Do I know how the signal is encoded on a phone? Do I know how the switching gets done at the switching station? Do I know the political-economic decisions that have been made that allow this carrier to have X geographic area over this carrier that has a different geographic area? And so forth and so on. One of the things that he realized was that when you start thinking about what ones needs the know, the line between social knowledge and technical knowledge gets increasingly blurry.

GH: Sure, and what about somebody saying that inside each of these black boxes of technology that there are hundreds of “PhDs” of knowledge and there’s a lot of black boxes inside other black boxes. Is it even feasible to think that everybody needs to understand everything? Or how many black boxes can you practically open? And furthermore, how does this process fit this into an educational institution, and how much should you expect a person to know? What’s feasible and where’s the payoff in terms of having a deeper understanding of technology?

MR: Yeah, I completely agree. And there’s a tradeoff here too, in that opening the black boxes of certain things doesn’t necessarily help you use them, and in fact it might make it harder for you to use them. The kind of naturalization of technology that allows us to use them more efficiently, for example, means that we don’t want to be constantly conceptualizing and focusing on a deep understanding of our technological environment. You know, if you had to think through the process of how you go about shifting a manual transmission car every time you pushed on the clutch, you’d never go anywhere; it’d be too hard. So there is a kind of need to make invisible the mediation of our technological environments, depending on what we’re up to, what we’re engaging with at that point.

I don’t think that there’s a single answer to the question of how much one needs to know. That’s the main focus of the book I’m working on right now. I’m trying to develop an object relational framework to allow me to say, “these are the attributes to the technological objects that are important for this type of question.” So if you’re looking at how individuals use this object, then these are the material attributes that you might want to look at. If you’re interested in understanding it from a cultural perspective, then these are some of the attributes that you might like to look at. And if you’re looking at it from an institutional perspective, then these are some of the ones that you might like to look at. To tell you the truth, looking at any of those three aspects that I just mentioned is often pretty banal. And not particularly evocative in terms of our understanding of the socio-technical world. The really interesting questions start to emerge when we address the contradictions between social forms. How the attributes of an object that afford a particular individual use of it are in direct contradiction with attributes that make it institutionally acceptable, for example. And all you’d have to do is look at something like an MP3 file to start to unpack what that looks like. This starts to get into the reality of tactical media and the other practices we were mentioning earlier.

GH: Right, I think of critical making as coming from tactical media or the arts as emphasizing the thing that you’ve made as an object to intervene in social, cultural space. This sort of side steps the whole problem of how many black boxes you have to unravel to really know something. You need to unpack the black boxes and understand the technology enough to make your object so that you can put it out there and that a statement can be made through the object. I see that if too much focus is on just the process of unraveling the black boxes or understanding the technology it results in people learning binary, or going very “low” down which is only really useful if it’s targeted in a specific direction. The lowness of technology never stops.

MR: I think the more scholarly project of critical making is an attempt to scope out some of these dimensions, to better frame what one needs to know and when. It also emphasizes–and I think this is pretty important–that not all the knowledge is technical in the true engineering sense, but also involves perspectives that derive from social science and humanities scholarship.

GH: Yeah, I mean, there’s another perspective on this angle that asks why do you need to wrap up all these issues in one person, and why does one person need to unravel this? Why can’t there just be artists that make projects and cultural theorists that analyze those objects? What’s the importance, or what do you get out of combining those things into one?

MR: I think the most important issue here is to consider what is lost and what is gained when these roles are separated. One way to consider this is to think about how you, Garnet, feel about other people’s descriptions and theorizations of your work, how evocative those writings have been in terms of what you intended or the value you saw in the object you’ve made.

GH: And most of the time, it’s terrible. And I think that many artists get into theory out of being frustrated at having their work misrepresented.

MR: They dislike or disagree with the stories that others are telling about their work and they want to do their own conceptualization. So one benefit of bringing those two identities together would be to say, “that’s an individual then who has a deep ability to conceptualize their work and to then articulate those conceptualizations in a variety of ways, including linguistic forms.” Because we do have to remember that part of what is going on here is that those commentators are skilled makers of their own. They’re skilled makers in language, or not skilled, depending on who they are. But that’s their domain; that is, in some sense, their domain of expertise. So, bringing the identities together is not necessary saying, “oh, now the artists need to conceptualize their works better.” I think artists have always done that. It’s about articulating those conceptualizations through a different material forms than most of them are used to working in, which is really the materials of language, or, to be more restrictive, the materials of scholarly or art criticism language.

But I think the question of the deep knowledge thing is really an important one and one of the reasons why I like critical making and not just making. Within the maker identity, as it is increasingly being performed by Makemagazine and other venues, there’s definitely a focus on technical knowledge, on people becoming as close to an engineer as they can get. I do think the process of training that I have seen articulated in Make often socializes people into particular ways of thinking about the way technologies work and work in society. Technologies are made for a function; they’re made to solve a problem. And although I don’t think the artists follow such instrumental views on technology, the makers and the maker movement definitely has that in it, and I think it is something that should be a bit resisted.

GH: So do you see this following through in things like DARPA funding Make magazine? That would tend to back up what you’ve just said how there’s a normalization happening in the maker community.

MR: Yeah, absolutely. Think about the notion of the post-optimal object from Tony Dunne. So what the hell is DARPA going to do with a bunch of post-optimal objects? I mean, that’s not going to solve any of their problems. The real driver here is to create these nice “STEM-educated” bodies that will fit nicely into the–not to be too old-fashioned–so-called military industrial academic complex. Certainly the DARPA move is a great example of that. It’s not mainly about military power; it’s actually about maintaining a kind of a work force. That’s the aspect that I am the most uncomfortable with. The idea that the maker movement becomes a nice feeder for a technical workforce that the powers-that-be in North America see as no longer providing. It’s not just that Make-DARPA guys are going to go make bombs. It’s the slotting into an industrial machine that has me worried.

GH: I see it as a fear of Chinese industrial culture eclipsing the United States. I see it very clearly as an anti-made-in-China mentality. And I think it is pitched exactly that way by Make magazine to the White House. And I think it’s true that North America has generally forgotten how to manufacture things. People don’t pull engines out of their cars, hot rod them, or even change the oil in their vehicles anymore. There’s a real forgetting of material making that has happened in North America over the last several decades, partially at the hands of the dot com boom and the spread of the internet.

In university I think students are interested in making because it’s novel. I like walking into an undergrad class and giving them a lump of play dough on their desk and just saying, “OK, make something.” Physically building things is novel in many educational settings. It can be a very immersive type of thing, and I think that Make magazine has very cleverly capitalized on this.

MR: I think you’re right. For me the main goal of making, whether critical making or whatever you want to call it, is to reconnect people to the world. The most powerful aspect of making is the way it denaturalizes the built environment. Being a maker basically gets people to look around them, to look around their world, and say, “OK, somebody made this.” This thing, this object didn’t just fall from heaven; somebody made this, they made decisions about it, they made choices about it and those choices are impacting me. And then the next step is recognize those choices as political, as benefitting some people over others. And the final step is for people to find some agency in regards to this political nature of the built environment. That for me is the ultimate goal of making. Which is why depoliticizing the maker movement is so problematic. An apolitical maker movement then requires that the objects that are made are equally apolitical.

GH: Yes, in terms of where the minerals are mined to make a device, how it was manufactured, where it goes after it becomes obsolete: much of this is stripped away in terms of how it is represented through Make magazine. It is often only communicated in terms of what functions it can do.

MR: Right. Part of what needs to happen is that people need to be aware of the tradeoffs that occur in making things. Sometimes these tradeoffs have to do with the environment, as in the rare-earth example you just mentioned. Other times the tradeoffs have more to do with social life. We have to be able to say, “okay, well they chose a certain screen size which makes it appropriate for a particular user group and probably quite inappropriate for another user group.” Ultimately, people need to understand the ways our social and natural environments are mediated through the choice-making that is part of the process of making. I think that is the most important thing that critical making should do–other than all the scholastic stuff that I’m interested in–it should help people see our environment as a made environment, made in particular interests, and serving particular interests. So to depoliticize it is to ruin this opportunity. Cleansing making of its politics takes away this amazing opportunity to better understand and exist in the world. It turns the making movement into just another way to create an industrial workforce.

GH: Or just another sort of prosumer or consumer-type group of people who now all buy open-source hardware that they could maybe assemble on their own but they’re too lazy to make something neat out of.

MR: Yeah, the prosumer thing is a great example, as is user-generated content. I mean, basically a lot of the Make stuff that I’ve seen coming out is basically the material equivalent to user-generated content. It’s all so heavily constrained, that it basically provides the illusion of choice. Which is what we get when we go to Burger King, where they say “have it your way,” (if they’re still saying that). “Have it your way.” That means you can choose whether or not you can have pickles on it. But in the end, it’s still a hamburger, right? So, you know, often times the prosumer thing is just a way of giving us the illusion of agency, in relationship to our built environment, but providing us so very little true choice.

GH: Okay, let’s move into you discussing what you have in your critical making lab. So let’s talk about this in concrete terms, in terms of what sort of equipment, what sort of social structure, what sort of instructional methods. Let’s talk about how you have made a critical making lab within a university.

MR: Okay, so that’s a really interesting question from an institutional perspective. First and foremost, this has been a very odd process, in some cases difficult, in some case surprisingly easy. I am lucky to work in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, which is somewhat of a hybrid place. There is some technical work going on within the faculty, but it is also deeply embedded in a kind of humanistic, interpretive social sciences frame. This creates the perfect context for critical making, since it requires both technical and conceptual resources. There are aspects of this that do remain tricky; for instance, I have a laser cutter that I keep moving around campus since it requires external ventilation and my lab does not have access to this. I am in fact located in a library–the main Robarts Library at the University of Toronto–and this does reduce the kinds of equipment I can have online. Equally, being seen as a technical practice can encourage both students and other faculty to see what we do from that frame. So we kind of ride the wave between being a cultural, humanistic space and a technical space.

GH: What sort of equipment do you currently have in your lab and what direction are you planning on going with it?

MR: My current research focus is on the rubbing together of digital and physical worlds. Most of the critical making that I do in my lab and with students involves making wearable or environmental computing prototypes and using these to explore critical information issues. Therefore, we work a lot of microcontrollers like the Arduino, LilyPad, or JeeNode platforms. We have a pretty complete electronics lab, with components and equipment directed towards both prototyping and, increasingly, fabrication. We just received an LPKF S63, which is a PCB mill, in order to play with creating our PCBs on the fly. We also do a fair amount of enclosures, or small mechanical structures, so we have a couple of proprietary 3D printers–a Dimension SST 1200 and an Objet30 Pro, a couple of Makerbots, and a Sherline CNC Mill. Probably the equipment that is used the most, other than the soldering irons, is our Versa VLS3.50 laser cutter.

We’ve sort of upped the ante with our current equipment since we’ve been moving into high-end capabilities, like with the Objet30 printer. But I do want our main focus to stay on the process side–in other words to continue to be focused on exploring the materials of production through making as an important part of critical scholarly work.

GH: So where do you see, where would you like to take the idea of critical making and what do you see ahead for either the term, or your own work, or maker culture? Where do you want to go with this?

MR: I think it is a kind of egomaniacal craziness to pretend to own a term like critical making. It is however a very successful academic model–whoever becomes seen as the original definer of biopolitics or boundary object or whatever gets widely cited. I do hope that my work continues to grow in relevance and that others read it and see it as a stepping stone to their own endeavours. But ultimately, I believe lots of people will engage with critical making from their own viewpoint.

I will continue to work on pragmatic and theoretical frameworks to support such work. Critical making names a mode of engagement in the world that is about seeing and making a world that has somewhat different characteristics from the world that we live in now. I know this is old-fashioned to say, but critical theory spoke specifically of scholarly work that intervened in the world in ways that were emancipatory, ways that were freeing, that actually freed up people from these dominant social structures that theorists, artists, and advocates saw as problematic. My worry about making is that it will lose its relevance and its alterity as it becomes more mainstream. I am glad to see more people making since I think practices of engaging materially–whether knitting or building a deck or programming an Arduino–help us all see the constructed nature of our physical environments. But I think this work has to be connected to deeper analyses about why the constructed world is as it is. Without such analyses, making runs the risk of just reproducing the environments and constraints we already face.


Matt Ratto is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making Lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. Ratto is an avowed expert on 3D printing and digital fabrication, having carried out research on this topic since 2009. His research also addresses pervasive and ubiquitous technologies including wearable computing and the Internet of Things.

His work crosses both the boundaries between the digital and physical world and the divide between humanities and engineering disciplines. He coined the term “critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world. This work is being carried out in partnership with non-profit CBM Canada, CoRSU hospital in Uganda, Autodesk inc., and Toronto prosthetics and orthotics experts.


Interview June 13th 2012. Edited by Matt Ratto, Garnet Hertz, Amelia Guimarin, Jessica Kao and Maroof Moral. Initially published in a different form in Hertz, “Critical Making: Interviews” (Telharmonium, 2012). Revised and updated for CTheory May 2015.